About ten years ago Mike Daisey was a customer service agent at Amazon.com. Reflecting on the experience he told David Letterman in a 2001 appearance, “I should never work in a corporation again.” Fortunately, he would leave the company and pursue an all-together different career; one that would come to see him emerge as one of the country’s foremost storytellers. But not before he stole some office supplies. To which Letterman quipped, “why not, that’s the American way.”
And speaking of the American way. In Daisey’s latest monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, which opened last night at the Berkeley Rep, our culture, norms and values are scrutinized in a riveting autobiographical piece set against the backdrop of the 2008 liquidity crisis.
I admit that I wondered earlier in the day if I could withstand sitting for over two hours (without intermission) watching one man tell a story — whiz-bang Spider-Man on Broadway this was not. My naive fears were quickly quelled when Daisey began to vividly describe running across the tarmac to board a twin-prop plane commandeered by a milky-eyed pilot and headed to the mysterious island of Tanna in the South Pacific (which reminded me and my doey-eyed wife Loni of our Loreto adventures) — a place where people speak a language that sounds as if “French and English had sex with each other.”
The fundamental premise of his show, that the financial system is our most sacred religion, juxtaposes with intensity against the tribal island life he discovers. Soon enough he finds himself unbelievably on a dias in front of thousands of natives. It’s John Frum Day, and all things American are being celebrated. Naked natives run around a stage in one ritual described as “Obama being chased by a dragon.”
There are many “awkward” moments. That can happen when you sleep with a pig, try to survive on PowerBars, and journey to the center of a volcano. Or maybe it’s the result of growing up in Maine. His adventures in food were some of the funniest, such as when he tried to coerce his body to swallow some Fermented Yam Paste, it was “like a rat had died on my tongue.”
At times Mike Daisey’s delivery reminded me of the late, great Chris Farley. He uses his large size to great effect; arms flailing, hair tossing, and eyes dancing. It alternates with moments of calm, droll and intelligent observation.
But The Last Cargo Cult has a very serious, complex message at its heart.
It was a strike of welcome theatrical serendipity that we had just attended the “Overconnected” event by the Churchill Club in Silicon Valley the previous evening. There Geoffrey “Crossing the Chasm” Moore moderated a conversation with Bill “VC” Davidow which scrutinized the forces that led to the 2008 liquidity crisis. Daisey also questions our interconnectedness and covers some of the same ground here: derivatives, pyramid schemes, externalities, bankers who want hand-outs, and … money. Money, money, money. “In this country, you can burn the American flag,” he says. “But you can’t burn money — it’s prohibited by Federal law.”
Daisey’s material demonstrates an astute connection to the American sentiment that most of us held in the years following the financial melt-down. There is plenty of cynicism and rage. But you get the sense he still a soft spot for “Awesome s!@t.” There could be some passing resemblance here to his Ikea-like view of consumerism and that what we see in Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club.
Not only does this mark the first time I’ve seen a Mike Daisey show, it also marks the first time I’ve been handed money walking into a theater. I won’t reveal the trick here, but it’s another ingenious example of mashing-up business and art in a way that capped off an exceptional evening.
I asked him after the show if everything was based on fact. He reassured me that he performs “non-fiction” and that the monologue is based on a trip he took to the island of Tanna in 2008; an adventure which so-happened to coincide with the financial calamity happening in the U.S. at the time. The most fantastical part is perhaps his delivery of the unscripted material. I’m guessing he’s been known to be the life of a party more than a few times.
This is the first show I’ve seen in 2011, and so I can say it’s also the best of the year. Sarcasm aside, though, I have a feeling our disposition could remain the same come year end.
Daisey’s next monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, plays in repertory and opens Sunday, January 23. I can’t wait.
The Last Cargo Cult
5 out of 5 stars
Created and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory (who also does all the driving)
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage
Set and lighting design by Seth Reiser
Through February 27, 2011 – Thrust Stage
- Per Wikipedia (one of Mike Daisey’s favorite sources): “A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures.”
- Also per Wikipedia, Mike Daisey had created and performed in 17 monologues since his first in 1997, Wasting Your Breath.
- In only wish I could have his problem where “controlling” wife (and director of the show) does all the driving. Instead I drive all over the SF Bay Area for Stark Insider coverage, while Loni sits in the so-called navigating position and … sleeps. Good music, and imagination are a must. Trusty Droid is a handy navigator. Note: I’m also responsible for seeking out anti-freeze just after midnight when Loni’s car breaks down coming home from Berkeley on 880.
- There’s an insightful and in-depth interview by Madeleine Oldham in the latest Berkeley Rep magazine (p.15). Having parents that were both former teachers, I was interested in why Daisey likes to teach. He says, “It’s really rewarding because if you succeed, even a little, there’s a chance you might have actually communicated. Which, I think, is why we go to the theatre night after night — in the hope, the dream , that someone might actually tell the truth.”
- The logos for his latest monologues are designed like iPhone app icons.
- Mike can drop the f-bomb like nobody’s business.